Contemplative psychotherapy for individuals, couples, and groups in New York City.
Dear Abbey Dharma,
I’ve been traveling the mindfulness meditation path for two years and have been progressively adding to my formal and informal practice, but it feels as if I’ve hit particularly rough terrain on the path. As I’ve become more aware of my own mindfulness, it seems that I’ve also become more aware of how I mindlessly hurt myself and others. I do experience greater calm, peace, self-acceptance, and happiness, but I’m also becoming more cautious and passive in social situations for fear of reacting to someone out of old mindless, ego-centered habits that result in deep suffering. Is this version of rough terrain on the mindfulness path to be expected, or is this unique to my path?
Two Years In
Dear Two Years In,
I don’t think your experience is unique, and indeed, I think increased awareness of the significance of every action is integral to the transformation of the mind to habits of kindness and compassion. I remember once asking my teacher a similar question. It had seemed to me that just at the point when my meditation had become quite steady and comfortable, my mind began to routinely call my attention to what felt like mistakes I had made in even the remote past as well as those I was in the middle of making. I’d stop in midsentence realizing, Whoops! I am saying this in a way that isn’t entirely honest. Or, I think I should be more sensitive about how I say this. Or, How could I have done that?
I remember asking, “Why is this happening? I was relaxed and at ease, and now I’m disturbed!” And I recall my teacher saying, “It is because you are relaxed that your mind is clear enough to see how easy it is to cause suffering, and your true nature, compassion, responds by cultivating impeccability. Your kindness is on your own behalf as well as on behalf of others.”
I also recall hearing the instructions of the Buddha to his son, Rahula. There are three aspects: Before acting, one should reflect, “Is this for the benefit of myself and others?” In the middle of an action, one should reflect, “Is what I am doing for the benefit of myself and others?” And after any action, “Is what I just did for the benefit of myself and others?” When I first heard this, I thought, “This is impossible! My whole life would have to be slowmotion.” That’s not true, though, for me. I take the Buddha’s instructions to Rahula seriously but not literally. I trust that it is my wholehearted intention to behave with kindness always that triggers the moral inventory alert, Whoops! Stop! Think about what you are about to do, or are doing, or just did. I am grateful for the alert. I can stop before, or in the middle of doing something I’ll feel badly about. I can apologize and make amends if I’ve already done it. I believe that my increased dedication to kindness is a direct result of my practice, and I delight in it as a cause of happiness.
Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sylvia Boorstein is a psychotherapist and a founding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, in Woodacre, California.